The Motion of Puppets by Keith Donohue

This reworking of the myth of Eurydice features a woman locked in a world of sentient puppets.

the motion of puppets

With The Motion of Puppets, Keith Donohue (The Boy Who Drew Monsters) evokes a bizarre underworld with an array of mythological references in a story of lovers seeking reunion. Newlyweds Kay and Theo Harper have come to Quebec for the summer, where she works as an acrobat in a cirque and he wrestles with a work in translation between semesters teaching French literature in New York City. The first line of the novel reads: “She fell in love with a puppet.” And this is where the trouble begins.

A puppet shop in Quebec’s Old City draws Kay’s attention daily, but the door is always locked, the lights off. One night, when returning from a party after midnight, she fears she is being followed and, finding the door unlocked for once, slips inside. Theo contacts the police when she does not return home, but no trace can be found of her. The rest of The Motion of Puppets alternates between their two experiences. Theo searches Quebec all summer for his wife, then returns to New York City and his work, distracted and mourning. Meanwhile, Kay adjusts to new circumstances: she has become a puppet. Along with the other puppets shut away in the shop she once admired, she is able to speak and move on her own only between midnight and dawn–once she learns how to move again in her new body. Eventually, she takes pleasure in performing (with the help of a puppeteer) for audiences, as she had in the cirque. And she makes new friends, especially with the one puppet who also remembers and yearns for her human form.

This dreamy, sinister novel alludes widely to history, literature and legend. Theo’s translation project is a biography of the photographer Eadweard Muybridge, whose work involved scientific knowledge of human and animal locomotion. Muybridge shot and killed his much younger wife’s lover, a story that preoccupies Theo, also an ardent–if not clingy–older husband. One of Theo’s colleagues is a professor of antiquities who is equally eager to find relationships between past and present. Most pointedly, however, Kay’s predicament is a reference to the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, in which Orpheus misses his wife so terribly that Hades agrees to let her leave the underworld and return to life with him, under one diabolical condition. In Donohue’s novel, Theo’s ability to save Kay from her incarnation as a puppet relies on his ability to trust her. But first, she must make him recognize her in her new form.

An engrossing novel of love, fancy and enchantment, The Motion of Puppets offers a perfectly wrought moodiness, detailed settings and an unsettling plot. Kay and Theo are underdeveloped as characters, but serve the mythic proportions of the story well. Smart, eerie and moving, this puppet show holds the potential to transport its reader to another world.


This review originally ran in the August 30, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 hinges.

The Trespasser by Tana French

Tana French surpasses herself with character nuance and plot twists in her sixth gritty, Dublin-set murder-mystery.

trespasser

Tana French’s sixth novel, The Trespasser, revisits the burgeoning careers of Dublin Murder Squad Detectives Antoinette Conway and Stephen Moran, introduced in The Secret Place. As atmospheric and intricate as French’s past work, this engrossing mystery succeeds in both style and plot. Fans and new readers alike will be captivated.

Conway and Moran are partners now, but they are far from fitting in with the rest of the Murder Squad. The guys–and they are all guys–give Conway more than the usual rookie hazing. In the opening pages, she and Moran are assigned what looks like yet another boring domestic homicide: a beautiful young woman has been killed, apparently in a fit of passion during a romantic dinner at home. A little too perfect, she “looks like Dead Barbie,” and her apartment “like it was bought through some Decorate Your Home app.” But most disturbingly, Conway is sure she’s seen the vic somewhere before. The young detectives may be a little overeager to find links to organized crime or something more involved, but as this case unfolds, the ambitious Moran and much-beleaguered Conway find wider-reaching connections than they’d bargained for. As an added headache, the obnoxious veteran Detective Breslin has been assigned to “assist” Conway, who is ostensibly the lead detective, though Breslin seems to think he can call the shots.

French’s fans will recognize of the hallmarks of her mystery novels: intense interior struggles afflicting the protagonist detective; a potent undercurrent of class tensions; a case that appears to have a mind of its own; a victim whose personality haunts those who are seeking justice. The oppressive mood of the Murder Squad threatens to overwhelm Conway, who’s barely holding it together under the stress of workplace harassment; the incident room she is assigned becomes a character unto itself. The Trespasser is told in Conway’s voice, giving the reader full access to her troubles and offering perhaps a hint of the unreliable narrator to sneak in.

It is a testament to French’s talent that she more than matches her established achievements in characterization, dialogue, atmosphere and detailed setting, while also surprising her reader at every turn. She offers layers of possible betrayal, hypothetical events and convoluted stories, even an upheaval in Conway’s private life that echoes an element of the case at hand. More than 400 pages pass by almost without blinking, as The Trespasser‘s momentum presses forward to a finish that staggers Conway and Moran as much as it does the reader. This is a complex, compulsively readable novel; French keeps getting better and better.


This review originally ran in the August 29, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 8 stories we tell ourselves.

Mississippi Noir ed. by Tom Franklin

Collected noir stories firmly grounded in Mississippi atmosphere offer a concise view of the genre’s possibilities.

mississippi noir

Akashic Books’ noir series travels to Mississippi, with Tom Franklin editing this collection of short stories by both established and newly published authors. Mississippi Noir includes 16 tales, symmetrically organized in four sections of four: “Conquest & Revenge,” “Wayward Youth,” “Bloodlines” and “Skipping Town.” The thematic groupings are loose, and the contents work equally well in any order, picked up and put down as the reader chooses.

These chilling stories vary in length, from 20-some pages down to just a few, and though they cover a range of subjects and settings in time, they consistently embody the ideal of noir writing with a strong sense of place. Bullets, blood, abuse and longing appear frequently, with some sex scenes thrown in as well. Ace Atkins writes of desperate teens running out of options; Megan Abbott, in a scintillating contribution, views from both sides a romance gone tragically wrong; Chris Offutt’s understated story stars a waitress drifting from town to town; and Dominiqua Dickey’s first published story involves an interracial romance in 1936. Within all of the pieces, the authors pay special attention to local details: natural beauty, economic depression, college culture, the longing to escape a small town or the yearning for a wider world.

These stories are dark by definition, and marked by unhappiness: as one narrator sighs, “I wanted sleep to pass without actually having to sleep. I wanted the future.” But an appreciation for the surroundings is always evident; these pages drip with Mississippi humidity. Fans of classic noir will be pleased and rooted in this redolent setting.


This review originally ran in the August 9, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish news.


Rating: 7 bullets.

Among the Wicked by Linda Castillo

A gutsy police chief goes undercover in Amish country, reentering a life she thought she’d left behind.

among the wicked

Linda Castillo’s Among the Wicked continues the serial adventures of a likable detective with an unusual background. Kate Burkholder is chief of police in Painters Mill, Ohio, a community more than half Amish. Her relationship with that faith, which she left as a teen, both pervades and complicates her work. She speaks Pennsylvania Dutch and understands the culture, but many resent her desertion. When a young girl dies under suspicious circumstances in the particularly insular Amish community of Roaring Springs, N.Y., Kate is the obvious choice to go in undercover. Her boyfriend, also a cop, has misgivings, but as her fans know, Kate won’t step down from a challenge–or a chance to help.

To enter this secretive society, which is led by a powerful, charismatic and possibly dangerous man, Kate must assume an identity that closely resembles one she might have lived. She poses as a widow, making new friends as well as new enemies. As she nears the frightening truth of Roaring Springs, Kate’s experience among the Amish drives her to reconsider her decisions regarding the faith.

Romantic developments in Kate’s personal life sweetly offset the disturbing events in this engrossing novel. Castillo’s skills are broad. Despite its deceptively quiet setting in Amish country, Among the Wicked is a high-speed, adrenaline-filled case of terror and intrigue: fast-paced and plot-driven, but with nuanced characters and an eye for detail where many thrillers slack off. This gritty mystery will equally satisfy fans of the Kate Burkholder series and first-time readers.


This review originally ran in the July 19, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish news.


Rating: 8 stitches.

White Bone by Ridley Pearson

A prolific author of action/suspense novels turns his skills to the distressing problem of elephant poaching in Kenya.

white bone

Ridley Pearson is known for fast-paced, plot-driven series for adults as well as for children. White Bone is the fourth novel in his Risk Agent series (after The Red Room), starring John Knox and Grace Chu, whose relationship undergoes significant change in this installment.

Knox is an importer/exporter of international arts and crafts, a career that provides him good cover for his clandestine work with Rutherford Risk, an international security firm that specializes in hostage extractions. Grace Chu is a forensic accountant and hacker, and a colleague at Rutherford Risk. As White Bone opens, Knox has received a troubling text message from Grace, just before she goes radio silent. Troubled, he follows her into the field.

Grace was sent into Kenya to track a stolen shipment of donated measles vaccines. The case quickly expands to involve the widespread criminal practice of poaching elephants for their tusks and rhinoceroses for their horns, and possibly the funding of terrorism. Corruption is standard operating procedure in Kenya, so Knox must beware of governmental agents and the police as well as the criminals he is tracking. When he arrives in Nairobi, Grace has been missing for days: he fears her cover has been blown.

Pearson’s plot is complex, watertight and humming with tension. The finest details are realistic and disturbing, and often require at least a moderately strong stomach, as when Grace, stranded alone in the bush, suppresses her usual hygiene habits in favor of survival practices gleaned from a Maasai guide. While the bulk of the story follows Knox, Grace appears both directly and in others’ narratives, posing a character development challenge that Pearson handles deftly. A large cast also includes a disillusioned British journalist, a Somali poacher, a Kenyan vigilante/folk hero, a helpful police officer, an activist lawyer and a resourceful Kenyan boy insistent upon becoming Knox’s right-hand man. Knox follows disparate threads and threats; Grace defends herself against jackals, lions and organized criminals; and the novel’s pace races as her situation worsens.

White Bone is richly detailed and filled with intrigue that encompasses terrorism, corruption and lingering colonial strains. Its characters are nothing if not passionate, and these passions include the author’s obvious concern for the central problem of elephant poaching. Pearson’s writing is informative and allows his muscular story to take center stage. Series fans will remain committed, and new readers will be drawn in, with no background knowledge necessary to follow this action-packed novel combining the thriller, adventure and mystery genres.


This review originally ran in the June 24, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 6 interior struggles.

Personal by Lee Child (audio)

personalWhat else can I say about Reacher? In some ways, my review of this book is going to say “this is like all the other Reacher books,” but I mean that in the best possible way. He is still a whiz, a he-man, a polymath expert – although I do like the odd bit where he is lacking. For example, we’ve heard before that he’s not a very good driver: it’s not a skill he had much time to develop in his Army-based life. I also found it refreshing that in this installment (minor spoiler here) he does not sleep with any of the beautiful women. I mean, I enjoy those scenes; but it’s more realistic for him to bat less than 1.000, don’t you think?

Briefly: in Personal, Reacher is tracked down by an Army contact to whom he owes a favor. There has been an assassination attempt against the French president, and all the major world powers are pitching in to help solve the crime, because they fear for their own leaders’ safety at an upcoming G8 meeting. The shot was taken so accurately from such a distance that only a few snipers in the world could have done it, making the list of suspects very short. Reacher resists the conclusion, but it does seem likely that an American took the shot – specifically, a man Reacher sent away to prison for 15 years, just 16 years ago. He is paired up with a young woman from the State Department (…or is she?) to investigate, and travels from Seattle to North Carolina to Arkansas to Paris and London, etc. It is, typically, an exciting and blood-splattered storyline, and I loved every minute of it.

I’m not saying much new here – if you know and love Reacher, you’ll be pleased by Personal, another chapter in the longer story and not at all Lee Child’s weakest. Next!


Rating: 7 pills.

The Treacherous Net by Helene Tursten

Detective Inspector Huss works to protect a Swedish city beset by multiple violent crimes.

treacherous net

The Treacherous Net is the eighth book in Helene Tursten’s series starring Detective Inspector Irene Huss, who continues to be challenged by upheaval in her workplace and her personal life.

In the city of Göteborg, Sweden, Huss is frustrated with the new female boss of her Violent Crimes Unit, who uses her sex appeal to manage the men in her department; she has no use for Huss, the only other woman. Huss has lost her longtime partner, now the boss’s deputy, and the unit is short-staffed and overextended by an unusually high crime rate. Gang-related murders are up, a mummified corpse has been found bricked into a chimney during demolition of a burned-out building, and two teenaged girls have been raped and murdered. One was from an affluent family who promptly reported her missing; the other had scarcely been missed. Meanwhile, Huss worries over her supportive but stressed and overworked husband, her aging mother and her young adult daughters, now out on their own. A new addition to her work team will ease some of the load–and present new challenges.

Huss is a tough, committed investigator and a loving family woman, and her shifting alliances present a twist on the standard police drama. Several of the actors involved with the crimes in question are well-developed characters as well. But The Treacherous Net is most accomplished in its plot, with several threads exploring history, long-standing social stigmas and the power of the Internet. This fast-paced, gritty thriller offers both a dark story and a striking hero.


This review originally ran in the January 5, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!


Rating: 6 cups of coffee.
%d bloggers like this: